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Against a clear blue sky, colourful windsocks designed to look like carp flap in the wind, making the fish look like they are swimming above. In summer, this is a common sight across Japan which has thousands of years of history of flying kites.
Perhaps there is something about setting things soaring to the heavens that lifts the soul because kite-flying, when done in Japan, is often a family affair where the kites symbolise the wishes of the parents that their children grow into healthy, spirited adults.
These fish-themed streamers that take to the skies, however, are a class of kites of their own. Known as koinobori, they are steeped in history as much as they are draped in colour.
We take you on a journey to explore the highs and lows, and ins and outs of the uniquely Japanese koinobori.
Koinobori is a combination of two Japanese words – koi means carp and nobori means banner or flag – and literally means carp streamer in Japanese. The koinobori set was established in the Showa period (1926 - 1989) and consists of, from the top of the pole down, a yaguruma which is a pair of arrow-spoked wheels and a ball-shaped spinning vane, a top streamer or fukinagash, five carp-shaped streamers in varying colours and sizes although the number of carps has changed over time, and a rope to string it all together onto a pole. The pole is not part of the set.
The yaguruma sits atop the pole from which the carp streamers are hung. The arrows on the wheels turn in all directions. Together with the spinning vane, they are supposed to be a charm to ward off evil and keep the family safe from harm in every direction.
The top streamer consists of five coloured streamers meant to protect the family from harm as well and often has the family crest that represents the family. Originally, the top streamer symbolised the whip or busho wielded by the samurai warrior leader as he went into battle. The busho was a symbol of his authority. So, the top streamer not only represented the family, it represented the authority the family has over the children.
Each of the carps represents members of the family including the patriarch. Traditionally, there would be a black koinobori that represents the father followed by a smaller red koinobori representing the eldest son. If there were more boys in the family, then a blue and green and, depending on the region, purple or orange koinobori would be added.
There is even a song pre-schoolers sing to explain all of this:
“やねより たかい こいのぼり
Higher than the roof are the koinobori
おおきい まごいは おとうさん
The large carp represents the father
ちいさい ひごいは こどもたち
The smaller carps represent the children
It seems they are all having fun swimming
The colours of the koinobori evolved over time, though. It was not always so colourful. In the Edo period (1603 to 1867), the koinobori were all black, like the wild carp. During the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), modernisation came to Japan. Western influence seeped into the country and colours were added to the koinobori, notably red. Since then, from the Taisho period (1912 to 1926) and then the Showa perdio (1926 to 1989), colourful koinobori came into fashion. Not only were colours added, patterns came into the picture as well.
Koinobori come in different sizes with some just a few centimetres long while others going up to eight metres. In 1988, a 100 metre-long koinburi weighing 350kg was even made in Kazo, Saitama.
From the Heisei period (1989 to 2019) onwards, other changes were made to the koinobori. One of the modifications was to its size. Large koinobori no longer featured because families in Japan simply did not have the space. Urban living has meant that families tend to live in apartment, many of which prohibited the setting up of koinobori on the balconies. Smaller sets of koinobori had to be created to accommodate the shrinking space each family had. Now, there are even indoor koinobori for those with little or no private outdoor space.
The other change to the koinobori in these past three decades was to the way the koinobori is set up. In the past, the koinobori was strung up vertically along a tall pole. Now, koinobori are also displayed horizontally along a pole. This form of display is gaining popularity, particularly during huge festivals across cities in Japan.
These fish-shaped windsocks are flown throughout Japan – on the roofs, balconies or gardens of households with children – to celebrate Tango no Sekku or Children’s Day. In Japan, when a child is born into the family, the family buys a koinobori to fly on Children’s Day. Families generally stop flying the koinobori when their children reach junior high school age – about 10 or 11.
In the past, it was the newborn boy’s maternal who would fly the koinobori. It soon evolved into the maternal grandmother buying the koinobori and presenting it to his parents as a gift to the baby.
Children’s Day is a national holiday that takes place every May 5 on the last day of Golden Week. Golden Week is so named because several holidays fall during the period. Golden Week is, therefore, the longest break workers get because businesses usually close for up to 10 days during this season.
Tango no Sekku or Children’s Day is one of five annual ceremonies traditionally held in the Japanese imperial court called Gosekku. Tando no Sekku is the sekku that marks the beginning of summer or rainy season.
Tan means “beginning” and go is a homonym of the Japanese word for five while sekku means seasonal festival. Together, Tango no Sekku means festival on the fifth month of the lunar new year, a reference to the fact that the celebrations took place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. When Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar, the event was moved to May 5, also the fifth day of the fifth month. Similar celebrations take place in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan on this day though they are all called by different names.
From April to early May, in anticipation of Children’s Day, Japan is festooned with these colourful koinobori as a way to wish children throughout the country good health and a good future. A Kintaro doll riding a large carp is also displayed, one for each child in the house. The doll usually wears a traditional Japanese military helmet known as the kabuto. Both Kintaro, a childhood name of a hero in the Heian period (794 to 1185), and the kabuto are symbols of a strong and healthy boy, reinforcing the desires of the families that they raise sons that are like that.
Tango no Sekku traces its origins to the reign of Empress Suiko (593 to 628). It was only after the Nara period (710 to 794) that Tango no Sekku was observed on the fifth day of the fifth month. During the Heian period (794 to 1185), the sekku in May was dedicated to an event for driving out evil spirits.
According to one story, in 1282, the festival turned into one to celebrate a victory won by samurai warriors in a battle with invaders.
In the Edo period (1603 to 1867), the occasion became an official holiday. It was then celebrated as Boys’ Day or the Feast of Banners. The plan was to use the day to create a national identity and stress the importance of military training for boys. Considering that boys are seen as heirs of the family and are treasured particularly in Asia, this was an important celebration. Girls were not included in this festival.
On Boys’ Day, armoured dolls, helmets, tigers, horses and flags would be displayed in the house alongside the Shohki doll which is the demon queller and the Jinmu doll of the first emperor. Parents would remember their sons’ births and pray for their healthy growth. Koinoburi would be flown in the hope that, like the wild carp, the boys would grow up strong and spirited. Since samurais of old also flew streamers, the streamers themselves, carp-shaped or otherwise, were associated with courage, strength and masculinity – all traits parents wish their sons would possess.
Girls had a separate celebration on March 3 called Girls’ Day or Hinamatsuri. Hina dolls would be put up in the home to wish the girls in the home good health and good fortune, and protection from evil. The dolls represent an emperor and an empress dressed in traditional costumes and are arranged on stepped altars which are decorated with peach blossoms and rice cake offerings.
In 1948, all that changed. The government collapsed the two days into a single day to celebrate the happiness of all children and to show gratitude to mothers. It was then dubbed Kodomo no Hi or Children’s Day. Throughout that day, children thank their parents and show their respect to relatives and teachers for their support and care. They would also eat kashiwa mochi (sticky rice cakes) wrapped in oak leaves as well as other Japanese sweet treats.
Despite these changes, the koinobori flying remained. However, the red koinobori that used to represent the eldest son came to represent the mother. Sometimes, the red koinobori is replaced by a pink one. The sons and daughters in the family are then represented by carp of different colours and sizes. Their carp would be hung in decreasing order of size, representing the decreasing order of the ages of the children in the family.
One would think that as a modernised, tech-savvy nation, Japan would see fewer of these koinobori which is so steeped in ancient beliefs and practices. But this is a people able to straddle the old and the new quite comfortably. So, in the weeks leading up to Children’s Day, you would still see the koinobori in the city, in the countryside and at local attractions, honouring a 700-year-old practice.
There are two theories as to why the carp was the symbol of choice for the koinobori.
The first is because of the fish’s natural tenacity. Like the salmon, the carp swims upstream to spawn, against the currents and against the odds. According to the Japanese American National Museum, the carp was chosen because it was considered the most spirited of fish. Because of it regularly swam upstream, fighting against the currents, it was perceived to be full of energy and power. This show of determination, strength and tenacity in the face of difficulties makes the carp an ideal symbol of all these positive traits which families desire for their sons (and later daughters).
The other theory as to why carps were chosen as the design for koinobori borrows from Chinese mythology. Fish feature prominently in Chinese ancient beliefs and is considered particularly auspicious because it is a homophone of the Chinese word for abundance.
There are two versions to the Chinese myth. Both hinge on the belief that carp can turn into dragons, mythical creatures the Chinese believe to be imbued with majesty, strength and power.
One story goes like this: Every year, all the carp would have a competition where they try to swim up the Yellow River, make it to the Dragon Gate where the river flows through a cleft in the mountains, and leap from it. Those who succeed would turn into dragons and fly into the sky.
The Japanese version also tells of the carp swimming up the waterfall but it does not mention that they transform into dragons.
The other story is based on a Chinese legend called Toryumon-Densetsu. According to the story, in the Han Dynasty in China, there was a school of golden koi swimming up the Yellow River. For 100 years, they struggled in their journey because they would be teased by demons as they swam till they reached their destination upstream. A god watching their plight felt sorry for them and turned the koi into a golden dragon, an image of power and strength.
Whatever the story, the carp symbolises strength, resilience and perseverance. Strong boys with fighting spirits who, like the carp, are able to courageously overcome circumstances and obstacles to succeed are what many families wish to raise.
That is why the fish streamers are then flown outside the homes, in the hope that the sons there will grow up with the same characteristics. There is even a Japanese proverb to describe this aspiration – koi no takinobori meaning carp climbing the waterfall or to achieve success in life.
The way the windsocks flutter in the wind also makes them look like they are swimming in the sky. Hence, once more, the reason for the choice of the carp.
The use of streamers goes back to the origins of koinobori. In the 13th century, it was linked to celebrating the victory of the samurai over invaders. Originally, banners, flags or windsocks were used by samurai warriors in the battlefield. Dressed in full yoroi armours, they would carry these banners, flags or windsocks – cut into different shapes and painted in various colours – to announce their allegiance.
The koinoburi drew inspiration from the nobori flags used in battle during the Sengoku period (1467 to 1615) to distinguish friend from foe. In essence, the carp streamers are a modification of battle banners of old.
From April to May 6 (the last day of the Golden Week holiday), Tokyo Tower usually flies 333 koinobori, each representing one metre of the tower’s height. The koinobori are of different sizes with one bonus fish – a giant Pacific sanma (saury) – that is six metres long. The Pacific sanma was added to the display in 2011 as a symbol of support for the reconstruction of Ofunato City, Iwate Prefecture following the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit north-eastern Japan in March 2011.
The koinobori can be seen from the main entrance of the tower.
At Midtown Garden, koinobori are regularly displayed during the weeks leading up to Children’s Day. In 2018, 80 art koinobori designed by Japanese as well as foreign artists were hung. The next year, University of Hawaii students showcased their koinobori creations there.
There is also a koinobori-shaped tunnel that you can walk through to experience the koinobori from the inside out. Measuring 25 metres in length and 2.5 metres in height, it can well accommodate anyone.
The Tokyo Sky Tree is the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world. Each year, the Sky Tree is adorned with koinobori as well.
The Toritsu Higashi Shirahige Park in Sumida-ku is another place that is perfect for viewing koinobori. There are usually more than 400 koinobori hung. There is also a flea market set up over several days with food stalls and live concerts.
Just an hour or so outside of Tokyo is where you can take part in this festival. For over 30 years, they have celebrated Children’s Day on May 5 by hanging 1,000 koinobori across the Sagami River in Kanagawa Prefecture to mimic the fish swimming in the river.
The Kumamoto Prefecture has been celebrating Children’s Day with koinobori for some 40 years. Downstream from the Tsuetate River is where koinobori are displayed alongside many ema or woodern votive tablets.
These tablets usually depict horses but the ones here depict koi and are called egoi. Because the Japanese word for koi sounds like the word for love, it is believed that making a wish on these egoi will help you find true love.
A visit there is also well worth the effort because there are many actual koi swimming in the river.
At the Akuta River in Osaka Prefecture, about 1,000 koinobori – made by local residents and kindergarten children – are hung across the river during Children’s Day to wish children good health and protection by the river which is a symbol of Takatsuki City.
Aside from admiring the koinobori, you can attend performances by the Takatsuki City Fire Brigade and brass band concerts by local junior high schools as well as the Takatsuki Taiko drum performance.
This year, given the situation with the pandemic, these live performances may take a backseat, though.
At Saitama Prefecture, this festival is held every May 3 by the Tonegawa River in Kazo-shi. Here, you can behold a 100-metre-long koinobori that is so huge it requires a crane to hoist it in the air.
In Gunma Prefecture, number, not size, is how they impress. The festival, held in Tatebayashi-shi, features over 5,000 koinobori across five locations, a Guinness World Record.
The main venue is the Tsuruuda-gawa River where the koinobori hung reflects perfectly in the waters below. Another place to view the koinobori is at the Morinji-gawa River where the koinobori are strung across mustard fields.
Made of paper, cloth or non-woven fabric, the koinobori is actually not that difficult to make. Kindergarteners across Japan have been known to make these carp-shaped streamers to hang.
If you are keen to give it a go, here are the instructions:
When everything is dry, your koinobori is ready to be hung.